I have on occasion heard people refer to science fiction such as “Star Trek” dismissively, as TGGP did a short while ago, and I’ve never really understood it. I recognize that Star Trek has a poor reputation with some as low-quality, mindless, escapist ,”shooting ray guns at aliens that are really men in rubber suits” fiction; I further recognize that some people view all science fiction that way.
But why? I can’t comprehend.
Science fiction tries to combine two very different criteria for literature: the exploration of ‘philosophical’ and scientific concepts, and the telling of character-driven stories. The very best manage them both at the same time, although it’s difficult and rare.
Much of the genre focuses upon the use of ‘realistically’ plausible alternative settings to showcase allegorical or symbolic stories by disguising the ultimate theme – which is really what most of storytelling has been since the days of Aesop and before. There is sometimes very little science in the science fiction – for example, Firefly didn’t concern itself with the technical details of how the ‘Verse worked, or the precise nature of the technology bandied about. Those were secondary to the purpose of the show, which was to present complex and sympathetic characters in a way such that viewers found it desirable to establish mental models of them, then develop them in such a way that the viewers could enjoy the process of learning and updating those models. Drama, in other words.
Some science fiction concerns itself almost entirely with philosophical or technical abstractions – see Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series – and literary ‘authorities’ often complain about the lack of human drama. When the human drama is emphasized to the point where the story is really fantasy in science’s clothing, they complain about that, too. (I shudder to imagine the mind that finds fantasy boring.)
The worst of shows like Star Trek was trite, boring, and insipid – but at its best, it crafted insightful and fascinating stories that engaged the minds of millions of people, and in some cases changed the way they saw the world. And, very occasionally, they produced moments of perfect beauty. I don’t see the shame in that.